Dating is difficult in early sobriety. Many of us who have gone through rehab, attended a 12-Step meeting, or done any kind of sobriety program have probably heard the wisdom not to make any dramatic changes in your first year of sobriety. This was especially emphasized to me in regards to relationships.
“You need to focus on your recovery,” my therapist in rehab said to me after I confessed a crush on a fellow rehab attendant. “A relationship will only distract from the important work you are doing here.”
Although I understood her point, I also felt lonely.
After leaving the safe cocoon of my rehab in Florida and going back to my normal life in New York City, I was even more lonely. I had friends that supported me, family that stood by me during the darkest of times, but still I felt like something was missing. When I began to see a new therapist at home, one who focused on cognitive behavioral therapy, she had me catalog all of my drinking for the past year. That’s when I finally realized that the nights when I didn’t drink were nights spent on a date or with close friends. The nights when I drank—and I drank a lot, often blacking out for days at a time during the peak of my addictive behavior—was when I had no social plans.
Being back in New York City was difficult. Despite my friends telling me that they supported me no matter what, I isolated myself from my loved ones because I still felt shame about my alcohol addiction. I also didn’t seek any kind of recovery group. Eventually, I relapsed five times before deciding to move back to Florida and stay with my parents while I figured out the next steps in my life—including how to conquer recovery for good.
But I also recognized that I would need to build some sort of social network here, too. So, I mindlessly signed up for various dating apps in an effort to cure some of my boredom. Even though the general recovery advice says to not date in the first year of recovery, I was lonely and couldn’t think of a better way to make new friends. Maybe I was a little desperate for whatever kind of connection I could find but I was genuinely excited about the prospect of meeting new people, even if I was doing it “wrong” by other people’s standards.
Exactly a week after moving, I had my first date with A.
We’d been chatting on a dating app for a few days, our conversations flowing easily, so I decided to be honest about my sobriety even before we met. I was a bit nervous about revealing my sober status, but hoped he would be understanding when I told him that I had a “bit too much fun” with alcohol. Shortly afterward, he asked me out for coffee and we had one of those impossible-to-end dates that only stopped because I had family plans.
We had great date after great date and, a few weeks into our nascent relationship, A asked me to go away for the weekend. The plan was to spend a weekend away, see a concert, and go to a theme park. Before this, I’d never seen him drink but, at the concert, he respectfully asked me if it would be okay for him to have a beer. I agreed. To be honest, I was already in a venue where most people were drinking and it didn’t bother me that he wanted to enjoy an alcoholic beverage, too. He had been so respectful of my recovery that I didn’t feel in danger of drinking myself. He didn’t pressure me or even ask if I wanted a drink. Instead, I happily sipped on my cherry coke, feeling secure in my sobriety.
He didn’t feel good drinking in front of me and was considering giving up alcohol to support my recovery.
A couple of weeks later, when he met my parents, my father convinced A to have a shot of his sake. Wanting to make a good impression, A played along and had the drink—again, asking me if this was okay. But that was the last time I saw him drink.
Shortly afterward, he told me that he didn’t feel good drinking in front of me and was considering giving up alcohol to support my recovery.
I was astounded.
Coming from a world where drinking was the norm, from boozy brunches to happy hours to wine with dinner, I didn’t know what to say. Honestly, I was scared that he would come to regret his choice—or, worse, grow to resent me for not being able to have something he once enjoyed. But he assured me he wouldn’t.
The truth is that A never truly enjoyed drinking. His ex’s drunk antics never amused him, and he hated being drunk himself. After just two drinks, he told me he often felt what I would describe as hangover symptoms: headache, upset stomach, a general tiredness. Giving up alcohol would be easy for him, he swore to me, and emphasized again how much he wanted to support my recovery.
Two years into our relationship, he’s never regretted his decision. And most of all, I’ve never appreciated his decision more.
Not drinking turned out to be easy for us as a couple, most of the time. We didn’t have friends who drank heavily, the way I had in my past, so it was rarely a problem. We also began to engage in activities where drinking was rarely prominent, like going to the movies or hosting game nights with friends. We didn’t need alcohol to have fun, we said, and when friends drank, I didn’t feel so alone because I had someone by my side who supported me.
With A’s support, I also went back to therapy. Whenever a potentially dangerous situation came up where alcohol would be present, such as a solo trip for work or our trip to Germany last year, we would talk about it.
When we saw a non-alcoholic beer on a menu during a special dinner once, he briefly considered getting it (because he enjoyed the taste of beer) but ultimately decided not to because it contained 1% alcohol. During our Germany trip, he asked me what I thought about him experiencing a real German beer. I wasn’t comfortable with it, so he didn’t think twice about it and let the idea go.
His support for me not drinking meant so much to me in our early relationship, but as our relationship advanced, I realized that it has become a large symbol of our commitment not only to one another but also our commitment to our health. We felt like a team. A team who didn’t drink, that’s us.
And so, as we continued to consider our health, I ultimately decided to give up meat for him just as he had given up alcohol for me a year earlier.
When we first met, A had been a vegetarian for a year. But his diet wasn’t great despite giving up meat for health concerns. I had a lot of experience with cooking and eating healthier, though, so I began to cook for us constantly.
“If you’re going to be vegetarian, then you’re going to eat vegetables,” I told him.
When we moved in together a month and a half into our relationship, I took over our food menu, grocery shopping, and cooking. I relished in my new role and quickly adapted to only cooking vegetarian at home. From the start, I didn’t want to be one of those couples who had to make two separate meals. So, instead, I just opted to eat meat whenever we went out—which was less and less frequent as our relationship went on.
When friends drank, I didn’t feel so alone because I had someone by my side who supported me.
By the time I decided to give up meat, I had largely stopped eating it, anyway. It became a once-a-week treat that I stopped looking forward to. And as I considered our life together, I loved seeing us as a team who supported each other’s goals. Being healthy and sober became a goal for both of us, and I enjoyed presenting a united front when it came to us not drinking and not eating meat.
A month after I gave up meat, we got married. At our very small and intimate wedding, our parents ordered champagne at the restaurant where we had our reception. They all ate meat dishes, too. But A and I stayed strong, turning down offers of toasting our special occasion. We toasted instead with iced tea.
When I first entered recovery and was told not to date for the first year of my sobriety, I wasn’t so sure I could do it. I didn’t want to end up the victim of some 13th Stepper and, as a proud independent feminist, I felt a bit guilty about feeling like I “needed” someone in my life. But as I expressed my concerns to my therapist during my first six months of sobriety (when I relapsed a few times and kept it from my loved ones), she pointed me to a popular addiction video on YouTube that helped to explain why loneliness had been such an issue for me.
In the video, the narrator explains that addiction is a problem of not having solid connections and uses the Rat Park experiment (in which rats who live in a haven with plenty of friends rarely get addicted) to demonstrate why making solid human connections can help so many of us suffering.
A month after I gave up meat, we got married.
I still watch that video occasionally as a reminder to not isolate myself, as I did in the past during my active addiction, and to keep working on strengthening my relationships with friends and family.
But most of all, the video reminds me why it meant so much when my now-husband gave up alcohol for me. It’s a kind of support that was unthinkable to me before, but that has become of huge importance to me in recovery. Being part of a non-drinking team has strengthened my own resolve and allowed me to have someone who always has my back.
Knowing that you have that kind of support, whether it’s with your partner or family or group of friends, is priceless for those of us on the path to recovery.